Behind a chalk line on a dusty road in the high valley east of Snoqualmie Pass, 93 extraordinarily fit humans are making final preparations for a 100-mile journey through lush Cascade forests. This is the sport of trail ultrarunning.
Behind a chalk line on a dusty road in the high valley east of Snoqualmie Pass, 93 extraordinarily fit humans are making final preparations for a 100-mile journey through lush Cascade forests, rocky, wind-swept ridges, slick, ankle-twisting ravines, rain, darkness and extreme fatigue.
By the next day, about three-quarters will return here, having traversed “the Trail from Hell,” “the Cardiac Needles” and other delights. They will suffer, cry and feel pain in 31 flavors. They will also laugh, forge friendships and find a deeper understanding of themselves and their limits.
This is the sport of trail ultrarunning. My cousin, Kyle Amstadter, is attempting his first 100-mile run, the Cascade Crest 100, which starts and ends in tiny Easton, about 70 miles east of Seattle.
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Kyle grew up in Helena, Mont., and Spokane. Now 30, he lives in Anchorage and works as a facilities engineer on Alaska’s North Slope.
Being an engineer, Kyle tends to think of his body as a machine: Keep it maintained and well fueled, and why shouldn’t it be able to go forever? He has tested that theory climbing in the Andes, dangling from frozen waterfalls in Alberta and exploring rivers and mountains in Kyrgyzstan. This would be the ultimate test of his machine.
I’m here as part of the crew to help see him through.
The friends, family and fellow runners he and other racers have enlisted as support crews are preparing for our own ordeals. We will drive narrow mountain roads, at night and on little sleep, to reach remote aid stations and wait for our runners to emerge from the wilderness for a brief pit stop. A veteran of the sport tells me that “crew” is an acronym for crabby runner, endless waiting.
Kyle’s crew is a collection of climbing buddies from around the Northwest, including Jesse Berwald. Jesse and Kyle started running together two years ago in Bozeman, Mont., while Jesse was training for an unmarked 50-mile run, which they both completed — Kyle, just barely.
The Cascade Crest course, by contrast, is marked with yellow ribbons and glow-sticks so the runners can focus more on the running than the navigating, though that’s part of the challenge, too.
We count down in unison, and at 10 a.m. sharp on this cool August Saturday the runners take their first carefully measured steps as dogs bark, crews cheer and the horn of a passing freight train echoes over the wind. In a few minutes, the pack is a receding cloud of dust, loping en masse toward the first climb: a steep, rocky trail up 4,900-foot Goat Peak.
“You’re an onion when you start running the race,” Kyle will tell me later. “And there’s all these different layers of protection between what’s really you and what you show to the world and show to yourself even. And the more tired you get, the more broken down you get, all these layers come off.”
FROM THE TOP of Goat Peak, the runners can see much of the terrain they will cover as the course makes a huge, clockwise loop through the scenery most of us only glimpse from the highway over Snoqualmie Pass.
At mile 14, trail-running Nirvana begins: a rolling, 34-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail that passes through old growth and clear-cuts.
Tacoma Pass, the first aid station support crews can reach, is along this stretch.
“Just driving up here makes me tired,” Kyle’s friend, Vince Gonor, says from behind the wheel of his scuffed up Toyota 4Runner, our crew vehicle.
The aid station is in a clearing by the road where the trail emerges from a stand of tall evergreens. It feels like a big family car-camping trip. The punishment of distance has yet to separate the pack, so most of the crews are here. People sit in the sun, chatting, reading, playing games, eating fruit. It’s all so healthy.
There’s also a nervous anticipation in the air. Eyes scan the last visible bend in the trail. When somebody spots a runner a cheer goes up, and crews spring into action.
At 2:49 p.m., Kyle trots into the aid station. We surround him and start firing questions: How’re you feeling? Do your feet hurt? Are you drinking enough? Eating?
Everything’s fine. “The course is beautiful,” he says, in amazingly good spirits.
We give him fresh water bottles and a cold strawberry Ensure, a drink that agreed with his fickle stomach on past runs. He swallows a giant electrolyte tablet and then peruses the spread of snacks volunteers set out.
Each of the 17 aid stations has an assortment of calories, as food and drink is generically referred to in these circles. There are high-tech energy gels, Skittles, fresh fruit, hot food and everything else literally from soup to nuts. Runners also get encouragement and care from volunteers — many of them experienced ultrarunners themselves — who haul in the supplies and stand vigil until the last runner passes through.
“OK, great. See ya, guys,” Kyle says, and disappears into the sun-soaked forest.
The whole stop takes four minutes.
AT THE NEXT aid station, Stampede Pass, mile 33, the scene is much the same. But fewer crews are milling about. The gap between the first and last runner has stretched to more than 3 ½ hours. This is the first cutoff. Runners must get here by 8:30 p.m. or their race is over.
Kyle arrives at 5:25, wanting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — another food he’s carefully tested for this run. He needs a headlamp for the next section. Jesse puts duct tape over Kyle’s nipples, a technique some men use to prevent chafing, a major concern on long runs.
Kyle sets off under heavy clouds gathering closely overhead. Night is approaching fast. The temperature has dropped dramatically in the last half-hour. Everyone smells the rain coming.
By the time our crew reaches the next aid station, it’s raining outright. The roads have gone from dusty to muddy now, and only a handful of crews are waiting in the drear. The endless chore is made more so by the steady rain. It feels like October. Two volunteers heat chicken soup, suddenly very popular, under a blue canopy.
The wet and chill add a new dimension for runners struggling to regulate their body temperature. The shoulder-high brush along the trail soaks arms and legs.
Kyle comes in at 6:59 p.m. He’s sopping wet, but looks and sounds remarkably good for someone who has just run 40 miles.
That will soon change.
While the course is marked, runners are still supposed to know their route. “It is not a yellow brick road,” as the race manual notes, and over the course of 100 miles and two days, markers can be stolen, moved or misplaced.
Somewhere around mile 47 or 48, Kyle is bombing downhill in the dark and rain. Despite the conditions, he feels as strong as he has all day. He’s with two other runners. They come to a road and turn left, following clear, spray-painted arrows in the dirt. After half a mile, the road reaches a clearing with no sign of the course. A wrong turn.
They backtrack and find a glow stick. But then a short distance later, a second turn is mismarked. A volunteer coming up to correct the course tells them as much, so at least they’re looking for it this time. But this is some of the most rugged terrain yet: steep, slippery and studded with tree stumps, brush and rocks. They slowly descend and eventually find the way, at this point a rope-assisted downhill scramble.
At the bottom, the course follows the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, an old railroad bed, through a tunnel more than two miles long, where at least it’s not raining. In a parking lot on the far side of the tunnel, Kyle gets turned around a third time. He spends perhaps 15 minutes searching for the route.
Frustrated, groping in the night, Kyle, one of the most even-tempered guys I know, curses and yells. He’s immediately embarrassed and apologizes to some volunteers in earshot. “I carried it with me for like an hour, just bad energy, cursing in my head. . . . Way out of proportion with what happened.”
Why is he doing this? Did I mention that every finisher gets a nice belt buckle?
FROM THE BELT buckle comes the gritty story of how the modern sport of trail ultrarunning began.
“We don’t go around talking about it and bragging about it, but we strut our buckles and everybody sees your buckle, they know what that means,” says veteran ultrarunner Kent Holder.
It started with a 100-mile horse race through the Sierra mountains of California along an old Gold Rush mining route called the Western States Trail Ride. Those who finished within the 24-hour limit were rewarded with a rodeo belt buckle.
Along came H. Gordon Ainsleigh. Picture an amalgam of Paul Bunyan and Steve Prefontaine: cutting wood, running marathons, riding horses in 1970s California. Good times.
Gordy, as he’s known, completed the ride on horseback twice. But in 1974, his horse wasn’t up to the challenge so Ainsleigh tried to cover the course on foot. When he finished under the 24-hour mark, they gave him the “100 Miles, One Day” belt buckle, too.
While it’s still a fringe sport, long-distance trail running has exploded in popularity.
There are now about 50 organized 100-mile runs in the United States and Canada, along with countless others in shorter distances and a few longer. Their names read like warnings: Grindstone, Bear, H.U.R.T., Lost Soul. Yet the most popular events are so oversubscribed that organizers hold an annual lottery to determine the field. Most people don’t get in.
Seattle and the broader Northwest have gained a reputation as a top ultrarunning region. With a bit of driving, you can find a long race almost every weekend somewhere in Washington, Oregon or British Columbia. Seattle Running Company on Capitol Hill has the sport’s clubhouse around here.
Randy Gehrke, a King County sheriff’s deputy who lived in Easton, organized the Cascade Crest Classic, as it was originally called, in 1999. Gehrke moved to Idaho and handed off the race in 2006. It stumbled. The new race director left the fire department unpaid, the runners without awards and disappeared. The running community recruited Charlie Crissman to resurrect it. Crissman, who’s been running long distances for more than a decade, mended fences and got the race back on track. Directing a race, he says, “is just like planning a wedding, but at a wedding you know all of the guests.”
The race will be run for the 10th time this August, and the field is full.
Like most of the people I encounter in the sport of ultrarunning, Crissman keeps things in perspective. Remember, people paid $185 for the opportunity to do this.
“There’s no prize money. No one’s in it for fame and fortune,” he says. “If you’re not in it for having a couple of beers and telling stories at the finish, you’re not in it for the right reasons.”
WE’RE INTO the second half of the race now, when runners can have pacers for safety and moral support. Jesse Berwald and his dog, Ripley, join Kyle at mile 53. Together, they set off into the night. I’ll be joining them later.
Jesse’s wife, Sarah, and I drive to the remote back side of the course to wait at the dark intersection of two forest roads. Around us, the pitch black of the mountains is occasionally lit by the moon peeking through inky, wet clouds. Meanwhile, Kyle and Jesse are approaching the Trail from Hell, a five-mile stretch along the west shore of Little Kachess Lake.
Kyle is suffering. Between the bottom of the ropes section and the beginning of Hell, he’s pounded through 18 long miles of dirt roads. That’s anathema to the trail ultrarunner. On trails, you’re constantly turning, climbing, descending, changing your stride and working different muscle groups, while resting others. On roads, you repeat the same, tedious stride for miles and miles, hours at a time.
Kyle hasn’t been able to eat much. The fuel tank is on empty. The machine, being pushed farther than it’s ever been, starts to come apart.
Cold wind lashes his knees, ankles and feet — already stiff and in severe pain. Blisters flare up and blow on both feet. At the aid station just before the Trail from Hell, the rest of Kyle’s crew tends to his feet, covering blisters with duct tape and giving him dry shoes.
“All of my fast-twitch muscles around my ankles pretty much stopped working,” Kyle explains later, “and I had no balance.”
It’s close to 2 a.m., and the runner’s world shrinks to the tunnel of light cast by his headlamp. The trail is narrow, sometimes bordered by a cliff, other times crossed with chest-high deadfall logs slick with rain: Climb over or crawl under. Kyle confronts rocky step-downs the height of a dining room table. On fresh legs, he would effortlessly bounce through, enjoying it. Now, he struggles to instruct nonresponsive muscles, lowering brittle legs one at a time, demoralized.
I certainly can’t jump, he thinks, I’ll shatter every bone in my legs.
JUST BEFORE 5 a.m. I see two lights bobbing out of the darkness. Headlamps coming up the road. With no ceremony and few words exchanged, I join Kyle, Jesse and Ripley at mile 75. Alternating between a fast walk and a slow trot, we climb a winding, wind-swept gravel road.
Runners welcome the dawn on the second day of an ultramarathon. It means they will stop running today. This sunrise has no drama. The sky gradually lightens from charcoal black to a dishwater gray. It is silent but for the sounds of wind, of breathing and panting, and footfalls on gravel.
“You’ve done like 75 miles. Three marathons down,” I say, trying to lift Kyle’s spirits.
“It’s the one to go that scares me,” he says.
We approach the desolate No Name Ridge aid station, mile 80, just in time for breakfast.
Lisa Bliss, a top ultrarunner, stands behind a camp stove, smiling. “You guys want a pierogi? They’re hot.” Kyle asks for broth, stomaching as many calories as he can. Jesse and I eat the hot potato-filled dumplings. Delicious.
We pause for a picture next to a sign that reads, “You Can Do It!!!”
Ahead are the Cardiac Needles, so named because the elevation chart for this stretch resembles an EKG readout.
Kyle hobbles along like an old man, an image reinforced by his fondness for Ensure. He walks when he has to. Stops. Stumbles. Plods forward. Ripley, the consummate running dog, wags his tail.
The Needles are steeper than a flight of stairs and seem to go on forever. At the top of one, Kyle mumbles, “All this for a belt buckle.” On the way down, things get critical. “My feet are a mess again,” he concedes.
The duct tape is cutting off circulation in his swelling left foot. Jesse tears at the soiled, soggy tape. Kyle exhales. Says nothing. His face contorts with pain.
It takes almost two hours to cover the next four miles. We climb up Thorp Mountain. At 5,854 feet, this is the high point of the course. There’s a fire lookout shrouded in clouds, right out of “Dharma Bums.”
Almost all downhill from here, which is just as painful as the uphill. Our spent quadriceps can barely arrest our wobbling, downhill strides. It gets warmer as we come down off the highlands into thicker forests and bright green meadows. The trail cuts through thigh-high huckleberry bushes and we drag our hands, harvesting sweet, cold fruit as we run past.
We reach the French Cabin aid station, mile 88, just over 24 hours since the race began. Kyle’s sport watch calculates that he’s burned 12,639 calories.
Kyle’s crew is there, smiling, encouraging us on. I couldn’t be happier to be on the receiving end of a crew’s work.
The descent from the mountains drags on forever. At mile 95, we finally reach the valley floor and the trails give way to roads. First dirt, then gravel, then paved.
The sun is out again. A nice afternoon for a jog.
Somehow, Kyle finds a last ounce of energy and begins to flat-out run, ignoring the pain. He seems to be thinking through each stride, instructing the individual muscles in his legs to contract. We cover the homestretch in 50 minutes — 10 minutes a mile — obliterating the earlier pace of around 17 minutes a mile.
I struggle to keep up as Kyle churns ahead, and I cheer as he runs down the finishing chute, discovering just how far he can go.
Benjamin J. Romano is a Seattle Times business reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.